Premature Ejaculation is no laughing matter…or is it?
Condemned, celebrated, shunned: masturbation has long been an uncomfortable fact of life. Why?
The anonymous author of the pamphlet Onania (1716) was very worried about masturbation. The ‘shameful vice’, the ‘solitary act of pleasure’, was something too terrible to even be described. The writer agreed with those ‘who are of the opinion, that… it never ought to be spoken of, or hinted at, because the bare mentioning of it may be dangerous to some’. There was, however, little reticence in cataloguing ‘the frightful consequences of self-pollution’. Gonorrhoea, fits, epilepsy, consumption, impotence, headaches, weakness of intellect, backache, pimples, blisters, glandular swelling, trembling, dizziness, heart palpitations, urinary discharge, ‘wandering pains’, and incontinence – were all attributed to the scourge of onanism.
The fear was not confined to men. The full title of the pamphlet was Onania: Or the Heinous Sin of Self-Pollution, and all its Frightful Consequences (in Both Sexes). Its author was aware that the sin of Onan referred to the spilling of male seed (and divine retribution for the act) but reiterated that he treated ‘of this crime in relation to women as well as men’. ‘[W]hilst the offence is Self-Pollution in both, I could not think of any other word which would so well put the reader in mind both of the sin and its punishment’. Women who indulged could expect disease of the womb, hysteria, infertility and deflowering (the loss of ‘that valuable badge of their chastity and innocence’).
Another bestselling pamphlet was published later in the century: L’onanisme (1760) by Samuel Auguste Tissot. He was critical of Onania, ‘a real chaos … all the author’s reflections are nothing but theological and moral puerilities’, but nevertheless listed ‘the ills of which the English patients complain’. Tissot was likewise fixated on ‘the physical disorders produced by masturbation’, and provided his own case study, a watchmaker who had self-pleasured himself into ‘insensibility’ on a daily basis, sometimes three times a day; ‘I found a being that less resembled a living creature than a corpse, lying upon straw, meagre, pale, and filthy, casting forth an infectious stench; almost incapable of motion.’ The fear these pamphlets promoted soon spread.
The strange thing is that masturbation was never before the object of such horror. In ancient times, masturbation was either not much mentioned or treated as something a little vulgar, not in good taste, a bad joke. In the Middle Ages and for much of the early modern period too, masturbation, while sinful and unnatural, was not invested with such significance. What changed?
Religion and medicine combined powerfully to create a new and hostile discourse. The idea that the soul was present in semen led to thinking that it was very important to retain the vital fluid. Its spilling became, then, both immoral and dangerous (medicine believed in female semen at the time). ‘Sin, vice, and self-destruction’ were the ‘trinity of ideas’ that would dominate from the 18th into the 19th century, as the historians Jean Stengers and Anne Van Neck put it in Masturbation: The Great Terror (2001).
There were exceptions. Sometimes masturbation was opposed for more ‘enlightened’ reasons. In the 1830s and 1840s, for instance, female moral campaign societies in the United States condemned masturbation, not out of hostility to sex, but as a means to self-control. What would now be termed ‘greater sexual agency’ – the historian April Haynes refers to ‘sexual virtue’ and ‘virtuous restraint’ – was central to their message.
Yet it is difficult to escape the intensity of the fear. J H Kellogg’s Plain Facts for Old and Young (1877) contained both exaggerated horror stories and grand claims: ‘neither the plague, nor war, nor smallpox, nor similar diseases, have produced results so disastrous to humanity as the pernicious habit of Onanism; it is the destroying element of civilised societies’. Kellogg suggested remedies for the scourge, such as exercise, strict bathing and sleeping regimes, compresses, douching, enemas and electrical treatment. Diet was vital: this rabid anti-masturbator was co-inventor of the breakfast cereal that still bears his name. ‘Few of today’s eaters of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes know that he invented them, almost literally, as anti-masturbation food,’ as the psychologist John Money once pointed out.
The traces are still with us in other ways. Male circumcision, for instance, originated in part with the 19th-century obsession with the role of the foreskin in encouraging masturbatory practices. Consciously or not, many US males are faced with this bodily reminder every time they masturbate. And the general disquiet unleashed in the 18th century similarly lingers on today. We seem to have a confusing and conflicting relationship with masturbation. On one hand it is accepted, even celebrated – on the other, there remains an unmistakable element of taboo.
When the sociologist Anthony Giddens in The Transformation of Intimacy (1992) attempted to identify what made modern sex modern, one of the characteristics he identified was the acceptance of masturbation. It was, as he said, masturbation’s ‘coming out’. Now it was ‘widely recommended as a major source of sexual pleasure, and actively encouraged as a mode of improving sexual responsiveness on the part of both sexes’. It had indeed come to signify female sexual freedom with Betty Dodson’s Liberating Masturbation (1974) (renamed and republished as Sex for One in 1996), which has sold more than a million copies, and her Bodysex Workshops in Manhattan with their ‘all-women masturbation circles’. The Boston Women’s Health Collective’s classic feminist text Our Bodies, Ourselves (1973) included a section called ‘Learning to Masturbate’.
Alfred Kinsey and his team are mainly remembered for the sex surveys that publicised the pervasiveness of same-sex desires and experiences in the US, but they also recognised the prevalence of masturbation. It was, for both men and women, one of the nation’s principal sexual outlets. In the US National Survey (2009–10), 94 per cent of men aged 25-29 and 85 per cent of women in the same age group said that they had masturbated alone in the course of their lifetime. (All surveys indicate lower reported rates for women.) In the just-published results of the 2012 US National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior, 92 per cent of straight men and a full 100 per cent of gay men recorded lifetime masturbation.
There has certainly been little silence about the activity. Several generations of German university students were questioned by a Hamburg research team about their masturbatory habits to chart changing attitudes and practices from 1966 to 1996; their results were published in 2003. Did they reach orgasm? Were they sexually satisfied? Was it fun? In another study, US women were contacted on Craigslist and asked about their masturbatory experiences, including clitoral stimulation and vaginal penetration. An older, somewhat self-referential study from 1977 of sexual arousal to films of masturbation asked psychology students at the University of Connecticut to report their ‘genital sensations’ while watching those films. Erection? Ejaculation? Breast sensations? Vaginal lubrication? Orgasm? And doctors have written up studies of the failed experiments of unfortunate patients: ‘Masturbation Injury Resulting from Intraurethral Introduction of Spaghetti’ (1986); ‘Penile Incarceration Secondary to Masturbation with A Steel Pipe’ (2013), with illustrations.
‘We are a profoundly self-pleasuring society at both a metaphorical and material level’
Self-stimulation has been employed in sexual research, though not always to great import. Kinsey and his team wanted to measure how far, if at all, semen was projected during ejaculation: Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy, Kinsey’s biographer, refers to queues of men in Greenwich Village waiting to be filmed at $3 an ejaculation. William Masters and Virginia Johnson recorded and measured the physiological response during sexual arousal, using new technology, including a miniature camera inside a plastic phallus. Their book Human Sexual Response (1966) was based on data from more than 10,000 orgasms from nearly 700 volunteers: laboratory research involving sexual intercourse, stimulation, and masturbation by hand and with that transparent phallus. Learned journals have produced findings such as ‘Orgasm in Women in the Laboratory – Quantitative Studies on Duration, Intensity, Latency, and Vaginal Blood Flow’ (1985).
In therapy, too, masturbation has found its place ‘as a means of achieving sexual health’, as an article by Eli Coleman, the director of the programme in human sexuality at the University of Minnesota Medical School, once put it. A published study in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology in 1977 outlined therapist-supervised female masturbation (with dildo, vibrator and ‘organic vegetables’) as a way of encouraging vaginal orgasm. Then there is The Big Book of Masturbation (2003) and the hundreds of (pun intended) self-help books, Masturbation for Weight Loss, a Woman’s Guide only among the latest (and more opportunistic).
Self-pleasure has featured in literature, most famously in Philip Roth’s novel Portnoy’s Complaint (1969). But it is there in more recent writing too, including Chuck Palahniuk’s disturbing short story ‘Guts’ (2004). Autoeroticism (and its traces) have been showcased in artistic expression: in Jordan MacKenzie’s sperm and charcoal canvases (2007), for example, or in Marina Abramović’s reprise of Vito Acconci’s Seedbed at the Guggenheim in 2005, or her video art Balkan Erotic Epic of the same year.
On film and television, masturbation is similarly pervasive: Lauren Rosewarne’s Masturbation in Pop Culture (2014) was able to draw on more than 600 such scenes. My favourites are in the film Spanking the Monkey (1994), in which the main character is trying to masturbate in the bathroom, while the family dog, seemingly alert to such behaviour, pants and whines at the door; and in the Seinfeld episode ‘The Contest’ (1992), in which the ‘m’ word is never uttered, and where George’s mother tells her adult son that he is ‘treating his body like it was an amusement park’.
There is much evidence, then, for what the film scholar Greg Tuck in 2009 called the ‘mainstreaming of masturbation’: ‘We are a profoundly self-pleasuring society at both a metaphorical and material level.’ There are politically-conscious masturbation websites. There is the online ‘Masturbation Hall of Fame’ (sponsored by the sex-toys franchise Good Vibrations). There are masturbationathons, and jack-off-clubs, and masturbation parties.
It would be a mistake, however, to present a rigid contrast between past condemnation and present acceptance. There are continuities. Autoeroticism might be mainstreamed but that does not mean it is totally accepted. In Sexual Investigations (1996), the philosopher Alan Soble observed that people brag about casual sex and infidelities but remain silent about solitary sex. Anne-Francis Watson and Alan McKee’s 2013 study of 14- to 16-year-old Australians found that not only the participants but also their families and teachers were more comfortable talking about almost any other sexual matter than about self-pleasuring. It ‘remains an activity that is viewed as shameful and problematic’, warns the entry on masturbation in the Encyclopedia of Adolescence (2011). In a study of the sexuality of students in a western US university, where they were asked about sexual orientation, anal and vaginal sex, condom use, and masturbation, it was the last topic that occasioned reservation: 28 per cent of the participants ‘declined to answer the masturbation questions’. Masturbation remains, to some extent, taboo.
When the subject is mentioned, it is often as an object of laughter or ridicule. Rosewarne, the dogged viewer of the 600 masturbation scenes in film and TV, concluded that male masturbation was almost invariably portrayed negatively (female masturbation was mostly erotic). Watson and McKee’s study revealed that their young Australians knew that masturbation was normal yet still made ‘negative or ambivalent statements’ about it.
Belief in the evils of masturbation has resurfaced in the figure of the sex addict and in the obsession with the impact of internet pornography. Throughout their relatively short histories, sexual addiction and hypersexual disorder have included masturbation as one of the primary symptoms of their purported maladies. What, in a sex-positive environment, would be considered normal sexual behaviour has been pathologised in another. Of the 152 patients in treatment for hypersexual disorder in clinics in California, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Texas and Utah, a 2012 study showed that most characterised their sexual disorder in terms of pornography consumption (81 per cent) and masturbation (78 per cent). The New Catholic Encyclopedia’s supplement on masturbation (2012-13), too, slips into a lengthy disquisition on sex addiction and the evils of internet pornography: ‘The availability of internet pornography has markedly increased the practice of masturbation to the degree that it can be appropriately referred to as an epidemic.’
Critics think that therapeutic masturbation might reinforce sexual selfishness rather than sexual empathy and sharing
The masturbator is often seen as the pornography-consumer and sex addict enslaved by masturbation. The sociologist Steve Garlick has suggested that negative attitudes to masturbation have been reconstituted to ‘surreptitiously infect ideas about pornography’. Pornography has become masturbation’s metonym. Significantly, when the New Zealand politician Shane Jones was exposed for using his taxpayer-funded credit card to view pornographic movies, the unnamed shame was that his self-pleasuring activities were proclaimed on the front pages of the nation’s newspapers – thus the jokes about ‘the matter in hand’ and not shaking hands with him at early morning meetings. It would have been less humiliating, one assumes, if he had used the public purse to finance the services of sex workers.
Nor is there consensus on the benefits of masturbation. Despite its continued use in therapy, some therapists question its usefulness and propriety. ‘It is a mystery to me how conversational psychotherapy has made the sudden transition to massage parlour technology involving vibrators, mirrors, surrogates, and now even carrots and cucumbers!’ one psychologist protested in the late 1970s. He was concerned about issues of client-patient power and a blinkered pursuit of the sexual climax ‘ignoring … the more profound psychological implications of the procedure’. In terms of effectiveness, critics think that therapeutic masturbation might reinforce individual pleasure and sexual selfishness rather than creating sexual empathy and sharing. As one observed in the pages of the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy in 1995: ‘Ironically, the argument against masturbation in American society was originally religiously founded, but may re-emerge as a humanist argument.’ Oversimplified, but in essence right: people remain disturbed by the solitariness of solitary sex.
Why has what the Japanese charmingly call ‘self-play’ become such a forcing ground for sexual attitudes? Perhaps there is something about masturbation’s uncontrollability that continues to make people anxious. It is perversely non-procreative, incestuous, adulterous, homosexual, ‘often pederastic’ and, in imagination at least, sex with ‘every man, woman, or beast to whom I take a fancy’, to quote Soble. For the ever-astute historian Thomas Laqueur, author of Solitary Sex (2003), masturbation is ‘that part of human sexual life where potentially unlimited pleasure meets social restraint’.
Why did masturbation become such a problem? For Laqueur, it began with developments in 18th-century Europe, with the cultural rise of the imagination in the arts, the seemingly unbounded future of commerce, the role of print culture, the rise of private, silent reading, especially novels, and the democratic ingredients of this transformation. Masturbation’s condemned tendencies – solitariness, excessive desire, limitless imagination, and equal-opportunity pleasure – were an outer limit or testing of these valued attributes, ‘a kind of Satan to the glories of bourgeois civilisation’.
In more pleasure-conscious modern times, the balance has tipped towards personal gratification. The acceptance of personal autonomy, sexual liberation and sexual consumerism, together with a widespread focus on addiction, and the ubiquity of the internet, now seem to demand their own demon. Fears of unrestrained fantasy and endless indulging of the self remain. Onania’s 18th-century complaints about the lack of restraint of solitary sex are not, in the end, all that far away from today’s fear of boundless, ungovernable, unquenchable pleasure in the self.
Complete Article HERE!
by Raffaello Manacorda
That Awkward Moment When…
If you’re a man, you’ve probably experienced this. Everything is perfect, the foreplay is going great, and the stage is set for a throbbing, mind-blowing, heart-shattering lovemaking. Your erection is strong and powerful, and feeling it turns you on even more.
And then, that moment comes. Your lover looks at you sweetly but squarely in the eyes, and with a soft but firm voice says, “We need to use a condom.”
This makes perfect sense. The risk of STIs and/or pregnancy is real. So you’ve got to wear that condom.
But our genitals don’t understand logic. And, sometimes, it only takes a few seconds of this pause for your penis to soften. Her being sweet and comprehensive only makes things worse: something inside you tells you that you won’t be able to do it if you wear a condom.
I’ve gone through the same process. I used to consistently lose my erection whenever a woman asked me to wear a condom. It wasn’t pretty. I hate to admit it, but a couple of times I even lied to a partner, telling her that there were no condoms in the house, while I actually had plenty. I just was too scared of sexual failure. Boy, am I grateful that no one got an STI or got pregnant because of that dirty little lie of mine.
So why on Earth does this happen? Why do we men lose our erection because of condoms?
The Real Reason Condoms Turn Men Off…
You might try to fool yourself and others with explanations such as:
- That you don’t feel enough pleasure with a condom.
- That a condom squeezes your penis too much.
- That the pause “takes the romance away”…
But deep in your heart, you know that those are not the real reasons.
As for sensitivity and comfort, you know well that your penis is not all that sensitive. In fact, the harder it is, the less sensitive it is. And as for the non-romanticism of the 2-minutes pause, you have fantasized or have been in way less romantic situations, where your erection stood strong and implacable.
So WHAT is the real reason why you lose your erection? And what can you do about it?
To answer this question, the first thing you need to understand is that your main sexual organ sits in between your ears or, if you prefer, inside your chest. It is your head and your heart that turn you on (or off).
So, the reason why we men lose our erection when a woman asks us to wear a condom is that some deeply uncomfortable thought and/or emotion arises in us in response to that request. And what might that thought or feeling be?
Although every man is different, that uncomfortable thought is virtually always a variation on the same theme: she asking you to wear a condom carries the message that she does not accept you inside her body. And this can be truly devastating for a man.
Some Truths About Male Sexuality
Men love to feel invited, welcomed, by a trusting lover that opens up to their force and thrust. When the body of a woman is welcoming, wet, inviting, this is a huge turn-on for a man. When the body and soul of a woman tense, close up, tighten – this is a turn-off.
Men deeply crave to feel accepted, welcomed, and trusted.
The request to wear a condom challenges that. It can seem to convey the following messages:
- If you don’t wear it, I won’t let you inside me (you’re unwelcome)
- I don’t trust you to be healthy, or to control your ejaculation (you’re not trusted)
This is the subterranean thought that runs into most men’s mind, and makes them lose their erection.
Understanding it is the first step towards liberating your sexuality from this blockage.
As a man, you need to realize that, even if you wear a condom, you are welcome and accepted. That she wants you just as badly. In fact, she wants you so badly that she wants to be fully trusting and surrendered. And in order for that to happen, she needs to feel safe. This conviction will take some time to build, but once it’s there, it will never leave you. Condoms won’t be an issue anymore.
In order to get there, the best thing to do is start practicing, both by yourself and with a partner.
Practicing By Yourself
Get familiar and friendly with condoms. Buy a pack of condoms and start experimenting. Wear a condom and play with yourself.
Now, I know that the condom instructions say that you should wear it only when you are fully erect. The reason they say this is that if your penis is not fully erect, then a condom can potentially slip away, which is not cool. But for now, you can forget about this. You are alone, and you can wear a condom even if your penis is completely flaccid. In fact, you should practice this skill. Wear a condom on your soft penis, and then stimulate your penis so that it becomes hard.
Familiarize yourself with the condom, and lose your aversion to it. This will be really useful once you practice with a partner.
Practicing With a Partner
This is potentially going to be scary, so you’ll need to set a firm intention: you won’t back off. You will wear a condom no matter what, whether you end up having intercourse or not.
Next time you have the opportunity, do not wait for your partner to propose using a condom. Once you have enjoyed your foreplay long enough, go ahead and say the magic phrase: “I’ll put on a condom now, just in case.”
That means that, whether you are going to penetrate your partner or not, you can wear a condom anyway and then continue with whatever you were doing. At some point you may even forget that you have a condom on.
Your partner also has a role in this. You can ask her to support you in a very simple way: by doing with your penis exactly what she would do with it if there were no condoms. Touching it, sucking it, teasing it—just as if that condom did not exist.
And now, if the moment is ripe for both of you, still wearing your condom, penetrate her. Don’t worry if your erection isn’t that strong. In that case, just make sure to hold the bottom of your condom with your fingers to make sure it doesn’t slip away. But do get yourself to the point where you can penetrate her while still wearing a condom.
This moment is a threshold, and after that, the rest will be much easier. The more you feel that things are going well, the more natural it will become to continue making love with a condom. You will notice that it isn’t all that different from not using it, and that wearing a condom will give both of you more confidence and a feeling of safety. Since you are practicing here, refrain from ejaculating inside your partner, even if you are wearing a condom. The purpose now is to gain confidence with condoms—not necessarily to have the hottest lovemaking of your life.
Every man on this planet should be able to make love with a condom, if necessary. We owe it to ourselves, and we owe it to our partners, men or women. Asking a partner not to use condoms just to protect our sexual pride is not an option. If two lovers decide to not use condoms, let that be a conscious decision, rather than a slippery workaround of a sexual blockage.
Complete Article HERE!
This is the first time I’ve asked a question and my boyfriend said this is a great place to go, soo here goes…
I recently went off of the anti-depressant medication Lexapro, and what’s fantastic about it is that my sex drive has gone way up. The downfall is since I started that, it’s hard for me to get hard and to come. Now that I am off of the medication, I can come easier and everything feels better and my boyfriend is happy, but it’s still really hard to get hard and stay hard. My boyfriend says he doesn’t mind when I know he does, and it is a really big hit on my confidence and self-esteem. Here’s the kicker, I am a 17-year-old teenage boy.
Is this permanent? Will it, in the future, be easier to get and stay hard the longer I am off the medication? I don’t know if this is normal or not, but I remember before having absolutely no problems. Help? Thank you so much!!
Well, Very Shy, what I can say for certain is that anti-depressants, as well as a host of other commonly prescribed medications, and even some over the counter meds, can and do have a major impact on a person’s sexual response cycle. Let me begin by asking you; how familiar are you with the concept of a sexual response cycle?
Considering your youth, you may have not heard of it at all. So ok, here’s the 411 on that. We all have a sexual response cycle, each person’s is unique, but everyone’s follows a similar pattern of phases.
Phase 1: Excitement — this phase, which can last from a few minutes to several hours, includes the following:
- Muscle tension increases.
- Heart rate quickens and breathing accelerates.
- Skin may become flushed.
- Nipples become harden or erect.
- Blood flow to the genitals increases, which swells a woman’s clitoris and labia minora (inner lips), and a guy’s cock bones up.
- Vaginal lubrication begins.
- A woman’s breasts become fuller and her vaginal walls begin to swell.
- The man’s balls swell, his scrotum tightens, and he begins secreting precum.
Phase 2: Plateau — this phase, which extends to the brink of orgasm, includes the following:
- The changes begun in phase 1 intensify.
- A woman’s vagina continues to swell from increased blood flow, and her vaginal walls turn a dark purple.
- Her clitoris becomes highly sensitive and retracts under her clitoral hood.
- A guy’s nuts further withdraw up into his scrotum.
- Breathing, heart rate and blood pressure continue to rise.
- Muscle tension increases.
- Muscle spasms may begin in one’s feet, face and hands.
Phase 3: Orgasm — this is the climax of the sexual response cycle and it generally lasts only a few seconds. It includes the following:
- Involuntary muscle contractions begin.
- Blood pressure, heart rate and breathing are at their highest rates, with a rapid intake of oxygen.
- Muscles in the feet spasm.
- There is a sudden, forceful release of sexual tension.
- A women’s vagina contracts. She may experience rhythmic contractions in her uterus.
- The muscles at the base of a guy’s dick will rhythmically contract resulting in an ejaculation of his jizz.
- A sex flush may appear over one’s body.
Phase 4: Resolution
- The body slowly returns to its normal level of functioning, and swelled and erect body parts return to their previous size and color.
- There’s a general sense of well-being, enhanced intimacy and, often, fatigue. Women are capable of rapidly returning to the orgasm phase with further sexual stimulation and can experience multiple orgasms.
- Us men folk need recovery time after our orgasm. This is called a refractory period, during which we cannot reach orgasm again. The duration of the refractory period varies among men and changes with age.
With that behind us, I can turn my attention to your specific questions. At any point in this cycle there can be an interruption or break down. Like I said at the outset, some pharmaceuticals, as well as lots of over the counter remedies, can and do impede our sexual response.
You don’t mention how long you’ve been off the Lexapro, but I’ll wager it’s not long enough for it to have completely cleared your system. In that case, a little patience with yourself and perhaps a sense of humor about the whole thing will be the best therapy for you. I suspect that you will regain your sexual footing in time. However, a cockring may help you gain and retain an erection till that happens.
Conversations between adults and teenagers about what happens after “yes” remain rare.
THE other day, I got an email from a 21-year-old college senior about sex — or perhaps more correctly, about how ill equipped she was to talk about sex. The abstinence-only curriculum in her middle and high schools had taught her little more than “don’t,” and she’d told me that although her otherwise liberal parents would have been willing to answer any questions, it was pretty clear the topic made them even more uncomfortable than it made her.
So she had turned to pornography. “There’s a lot of problems with porn,” she wrote. “But it is kind of nice to be able to use it to gain some knowledge of sex.”
I wish I could say her sentiments were unusual, but I heard them repeatedly during the three years I spent interviewing young women in high school and college for a book on girls and sex. In fact, according to a survey of college students in Britain, 60 percent consult pornography, at least in part, as though it were an instruction manual, even as nearly three-quarters say that they know it is as realistic as pro wrestling. (Its depictions of women, meanwhile, are about as accurate as those of the “The Real Housewives” franchise.)
The statistics on sexual assault may have forced a national dialogue on consent, but honest conversations between adults and teenagers about what happens after yes — discussions about ethics, respect, decision making, sensuality, reciprocity, relationship building, the ability to assert desires and set limits — remain rare. And while we are more often telling children that both parties must agree unequivocally to a sexual encounter, we still tend to avoid the biggest taboo of all: women’s capacity for and entitlement to sexual pleasure.
It starts, whether intentionally or not, with parents. When my daughter was a baby, I remember reading somewhere that while labeling infants’ body parts (“here’s your nose,” “here are your toes”), parents often include a boy’s genitals but not a girl’s. Leaving something unnamed, of course, makes it quite literally unspeakable.
Nor does that silence change much as girls get older. President Obama is trying — finally — in his 2017 budget to remove all federal funding for abstinence education (research has shown repeatedly that the nearly $2 billion spent on it over the past quarter-century may as well have been set on fire). Yet according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fewer than half of high schools and only a fifth of middle schools teach all 16 components the agency recommends as essential to sex education. Only 23 states mandate sex ed at all; 13 require it to be medically accurate.
Even the most comprehensive classes generally stick with a woman’s internal parts: uteruses, fallopian tubes, ovaries. Those classic diagrams of a woman’s reproductive system, the ones shaped like the head of a steer, blur into a gray Y between the legs, as if the vulva and the labia, let alone the clitoris, don’t exist. And whereas males’ puberty is often characterized in terms of erections, ejaculation and the emergence of a near-unstoppable sex drive, females’ is defined by periods. And the possibility of unwanted pregnancy. When do we explain the miraculous nuances of their anatomy? When do we address exploration, self-knowledge?
No wonder that according to the largest survey on American sexual behavior conducted in decades, published in 2010 in The Journal of Sexual Medicine, researchers at Indiana University found only about a third of girls between 14 and 17 reported masturbating regularly and fewer than half have even tried once. When I asked about the subject, girls would tell me, “I have a boyfriend to do that,” though, in addition to placing their pleasure in someone else’s hands, few had ever climaxed with a partner.
Boys, meanwhile, used masturbating on their own as a reason girls should perform oral sex, which was typically not reciprocated. As one of a group of college sophomores informed me, “Guys will say, ‘A hand job is a man job, a blow job is yo’ job.’ ” The other women nodded their heads in agreement.
Frustrated by such stories, I asked a high school senior how she would feel if guys expected girls to, say, fetch a glass of water from the kitchen whenever they were together yet never (or only grudgingly) offered to do so in return? She burst out laughing. “Well, I guess when you put it that way,” she said.
The rise of oral sex, as well as its demotion to an act less intimate than intercourse, was among the most significant transformations in American sexual behavior during the 20th century. In the 21st, the biggest change appears to be an increase in anal sex. In 1992, 16 percent of women aged 18 to 24 said they had tried anal sex. Today, according to the Indiana University study, 20 percent of women 18 to 19 have, and by ages 20 to 24 it’s up to 40 percent.
A 2014 study of 16- to 18-year-old heterosexuals — and can we just pause a moment to consider just how young that is? — published in a British medical journal found that it was mainly boys who pushed for “fifth base,” approaching it less as a form of intimacy with a partner (who they assumed would both need to be and could be coerced into it) than a competition with other boys. They expected girls to endure the act, which young women in the study consistently reported as painful. Both sexes blamed the girls themselves for the discomfort, calling them “naïve or flawed,” unable to “relax.”
According to Debby Herbenick, director of the Center for Sexual Health Promotion at Indiana University and one of the researchers on its sexual behavior survey, when anal sex is included, 70 percent of women report pain in their sexual encounters. Even when it’s not, about a third of young women experience pain, as opposed to about 5 percent of men. What’s more, according to Sara McClelland, a psychologist at the University of Michigan, college women are more likely than men to use their partner’s physical pleasure as the yardstick for their satisfaction, saying things like “If he’s sexually satisfied, then I’m sexually satisfied.” Men are more likely to measure satisfaction by their own orgasm.
Professor McClelland writes about sexuality as a matter of “intimate justice.” It touches on fundamental issues of gender inequality, economic disparity, violence, bodily integrity, physical and mental health, self-efficacy and power dynamics in our most personal relationships, whether they last two hours or 20 years. She asks us to consider: Who has the right to engage in sexual behavior? Who has the right to enjoy it? Who is the primary beneficiary of the experience? Who feels deserving? How does each partner define “good enough”? Those are thorny questions when looking at female sexuality at any age, but particularly when considering girls’ formative experiences.
We are learning to support girls as they “lean in” educationally and professionally, yet in this most personal of realms, we allow them to topple. It is almost as if parents believe that if they don’t tell their daughters that sex should feel good, they won’t find out. And perhaps that’s correct: They don’t, not easily anyway. But the outcome is hardly what adults could have hoped.
What if we went the other way? What if we spoke to kids about sex more instead of less, what if we could normalize it, integrate it into everyday life and shift our thinking in the ways that we (mostly) have about women’s public roles? Because the truth is, the more frankly and fully teachers, parents and doctors talk to young people about sexuality, the more likely kids are both to delay sexual activity and to behave responsibly and ethically when they do engage in it.
Consider a 2010 study published in The International Journal of Sexual Health comparing the early experiences of nearly 300 randomly chosen American and Dutch women at two similar colleges — mostly white, middle class, with similar religious backgrounds. So, apples to apples. The Americans had become sexually active at a younger age than the Dutch, had had more encounters with more partners and were less likely to use birth control. They were also more likely to say that they’d first had intercourse because of pressure from friends or partners.
In subsequent interviews with some of the participants, the Americans, much like the ones I met, described interactions that were “driven by hormones,” in which the guys determined relationships, both sexes prioritized male pleasure, and reciprocity was rare. As for the Dutch? Their early sexual activity took place in caring, respectful relationships in which they communicated openly with their partners (whom they said they knew “very well”) about what felt good and what didn’t, about how far they wanted to go, and about what kind of protection they would need along the way. They reported more comfort with their bodies and their desires than the Americans and were more in touch with their own pleasure.
What’s their secret? The Dutch said that teachers and doctors had talked candidly to them about sex, pleasure and the importance of a mutual trust, even love. More than that, though, there was a stark difference in how their parents approached those topics.
While the survey did not reveal a significant difference in how comfortable parents were talking about sex, the subsequent interviews showed that the American moms had focused on the potential risks and dangers, while their dads, if they said anything at all, stuck to lame jokes.
Dutch parents, by contrast, had talked to their daughters from an early age about both joy and responsibility. As a result, one Dutch woman said she told her mother immediately after she first had intercourse, and that “my friend’s mother also asked me how it was, if I had an orgasm and if he had one.”
MEANWHILE, according to Amy T. Schalet, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and the author of “Not Under My Roof: Parents, Teens, and the Culture of Sex, ” young Dutch men expect to combine sex and love. In interviews, they generally credited their fathers with teaching them that their partners must be equally up for any sexual activity, that the women could (and should) enjoy themselves as much as men, and that, as one respondent said, he would be stupid to have sex “with a drunken head.” Although she found that young Dutch and American men both often yearned for love, only the Americans considered that a personal quirk.
I thought about all of that that recently when, driving home with my daughter, who is now in middle school, we passed a billboard whose giant letters on a neon-orange background read, “Porn kills love.” I asked her if she knew what pornography was. She rolled her eyes and said in that jaded tone that parents of preteenagers know so well, “Yes, Mom, but I’ve never seen it.”
I could’ve let the matter drop, felt relieved that she might yet make it to her first kiss unencumbered by those images.
Goodness knows, that would’ve been easier. Instead I took a deep breath and started the conversation: “I know, Honey, but you will, and there are a few things you need to know.”
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